Executive Lead, International Institutions & Governments, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
While there is no question that addressing public health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is the priority, the nature of the equally crucial economic recovery effort requires serious consideration.
A landscape assessment yields brutal conclusions, showing a collapse of economic activity reaching almost 30% in certain OECD countries during the tightest lockdown period. Given the urgency of the COVID-19 recovery, the question is should current stimulus packages focus on finding the way back to growth by kicking business as usual into overdrive, or should they accelerate the shift towards a low-carbon circular economy?
Value of the circular economy
One way to tackle this polarising question is to reject the idea that rapidly getting back to economic dynamism is incompatible with a wider system transition. The current crisis makes the circular economy more relevant than ever, as it holds a significant number of economically attractive answers.
The early stages of the COVID-19 crisis revealed the brittleness of many global supply chains, for example, with medical and farming equipment availability issues. In these specific cases, circular principles provide credible solutions: design and product policy factors such as repairability, reusability and potential for remanufacturing, offer considerable opportunities in resilience (stock availability) and competitiveness.
The current crisis makes the circular economy more relevant than ever, as it holds a significant number of economically attractive answers.
Keeping products in use
These value retention strategies have clear advantages when it comes to supply chain stability, but they are also beneficial on the emissions front. Keeping products and materials in use helps displace the need for additional virgin resources – whose extraction entail significant negative environmental impacts.
Addressing the climate crisis requires us to look beyond energy and has implications for industry, food systems and land use in general. The end of 2021 will see global leaders gather (possibly virtually) at COP26 in Glasgow and COP15 in Kunming, to usher in delayed negotiations on climate change and biodiversity. At the heart of both discussions are our current models of production and consumption, which need an overhaul.
Clear policy is needed
Investment in innovative materials, regenerative agricultural practices, better resource management systems and, of course, skills can be done within the scope of today’s recovery packages.
Policymakers can greatly help this transition by setting a clear direction and enabling private sector innovation conducive to low-carbon, circular economy models.
As the global economy starts to look beyond the storm and considers its future options, moving towards a model that builds economic, social and environmental capital rather than one that depletes finite resources seems like a sound option.